AT DUKE, the week before spring break tends to be a time for latte-fueled cram sessions and the unearthing of tank tops and Ray-Bans before trips to Canc√∫n. The true madness of March—when the Blue Devils vie for another national title—won't begin for a couple of weeks. But this year the sweet anticipation of spring was rocked by a bombshell.
This is an article from the March 16, 2015 issue
On the Monday of midterms, the campus woke to a story in the student newspaper, The Chronicle, reporting allegations that former guard Rasheed Sulaimon had sexually assaulted two female students. On Jan. 29, Sulaimon had become the first player outright dismissed from a team by coach Mike Krzyzewski, in a tenure that dates to the Carter Administration. The initial explanation for Sulaimon's dismissal was murky. The Chronicle's report 4½ weeks later seemed to provide clarity.
The absence of Sulaimon, a 6'4" junior from Houston, has had little impact on the court; the No. 2--ranked Blue Devils, a likely top seed in the NCAA tournament, won 11 straight after his departure. Yet the news reverberated throughout the Durham, N.C., campus. On March 11, students discussed the allegations over french fries at the student center and in the English lit stacks at the library. One student said his professor of gender studies incorporated it into her lesson plan.
Neither of the alleged victims spoke to The Chronicle. The story is largely constructed from recollections of students who attended Common Ground, a student-run, university-sponsored retreat off campus, where both the allegations were first made. On two separate retreats, one in October 2013 and another in February 2014, a female student told the group she had been sexually assaulted by Sulaimon. (He did not attend either retreat.) The Chronicle's account also relied on an "anonymous affiliate" of Duke basketball and interviews with Lincoln Wensley, a former student secretary in the basketball office. Wensley, a senior from Kenai, Alaska—whose extracurriculars have included volunteering at a tutoring center named in honor of Krzyzewski's late mother—said he told his superior in the athletic department of the sexual assault allegations against Sulaimon on Jan. 22. He quit his job the same day.
Amid insinuations of an institutional cover-up, the questions about Duke's—and specifically Coach K's—handling of the allegations echoed far beyond Tobacco Road. Crews from CNN and Good Morning America showed up for the Blue Devils' home finale against Wake Forest on March 11. They weren't there to report on Krzyzewski's quest for win number 1,010.
Nearly a decade after three Duke lacrosse players were falsely accused of rape and kidnapping, a university known for the moral rectitude of its athletic programs again braced for scandal. Under federal Title IX guidelines, schools must investigate any allegation that a student has been sexually assaulted. During such investigations, the accused can expect the presumption of innocence. Each case has its own metabolism and fact pattern. Here is what SI has learned about Sulaimon's at week's end.
• Neither of the alleged victims filed an official complaint with the school or with the Durham police department.
• The Duke Office of Student Conduct opened an investigation into the allegations. According to an SI source, the case was closed last summer when the claims could not be substantiated.
• Sulaimon was dismissed from the team for what Krzyzewski described as a failure to "consistently live up to the standards required to be a member of our program." The athletic department has said that there was not one major violation but an accumulation of offenses. Multiple sources told SI that many of those offenses were minor, including a missed 11 p.m. curfew shortly before Sulaimon was dismissed.
• Sulaimon, through his lawyer, maintains his innocence. A sociology major, he is still enrolled at Duke and in good academic standing.
The Chronicle also reported that high-ranking figures within the athletic department, including Krzyzewski, became aware of allegations against Sulaimon as early as March 2014. Yet, in the absence of an official complaint or actionable evidence, administrators were hamstrung by due process concerns. The real inquiry about Coach K is not what did he know and when did he know it, but rather, given the circumstances, could he have acted differently?
THE OFFICES of Ekstrand & Ekstrand occupy a white Colonial Revival 100 yards from East Campus. Bob Ekstrand, a 1998 Duke Law graduate, and his wife, Samantha, are prominent in Durham's student legal circuit, representing clients who range from the accused Blue Devils lacrosse players to undergrads with marijuana charges.
Sulaimon contacted Bob Ekstrand the night before The Chronicle story ran. Yet he was baffled. He'd worked on many high-profile cases, but this was the first time a potential client sought counsel to respond to a report without knowing what allegations the report might contain. Initially, he agreed to serve as an adviser since there was no legal proceeding that required advocacy. A formal complaint may never be filed. According to The Chronicle, the two alleged victims considered "backlash from the Duke fan base" as a deterrent from pursuing charges.
Understandably, accusers in sexual assault cases are often reluctant to come forward, especially when prominent athletic programs are involved. Look no further than the rape allegations last year against Florida State's Heisman-winning quarterback, Jameis Winston. Within days of the allegations becoming public, the alleged victim says she received death threats from Seminoles fans, not to mention resistance from the Tallahassee police department when reporting the incident. Saying that her life was turned upside down, she left the school. Winston was neither charged by police nor disciplined by Florida State.
A program can find it difficult to dismiss a player on allegations alone. This isn't a mere abstraction. In April 2014, Maryland guard Dez Wells settled a lawsuit against his former school, Xavier, over his expulsion following allegations of sexual assault. Wells's suit claimed that Xavier's "reckless rush to judgment" resulted in a flawed investigation after he was accused by a classmate in 2012.
And of course, the issue of a rush to judgment of an accused athlete strikes a particularly resonant chord at Duke, where the lacrosse scandal and its aftermath remain painful memories. "The Sulaimon story struck a nerve," says Orin Starn, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke. "And because the details are dubious, how people reacted varied on how they view big-time athletics. Supporters of the basketball program tend to view this as a case of unfair scrutiny of the team in a way that Duke is always held to a higher standard. Those who don't like college athletics thought this was the case of a star basketball player getting away with rape, with a legendary coach possibly looking the other way."
After starting as a freshman, Sulaimon saw his playing time decrease each season; he was averaging 7.5 points off the bench this year before his dismissal. Is it possible that Duke came up with a minor violation to cut ties with Sulaimon, even without a formal accusation? Or, as implied by The Chronicle's time line, that Krzyzewski took a preemptive measure before the allegations became public?
JUST WEEKS removed from being the toast of the nation for winning his 1,000th game, Krzyzewski has not been forthcoming with reporters when asked about Sulaimon, citing the wide-ranging federal privacy law, FERPA. In a statement, Duke athletic director Kevin White clarified that any allegation of student misconduct brought to the athletic staff is immediately referred to the Office of Student Conduct. "Those procedures have been, and continue to be, followed by coach Mike Krzyzewski and all members of the men's basketball program," White said. Sources within the athletic department say Krzyzewski would like to clarify what he knew, when he knew it and the steps he chose to take, but is prevented from doing so because of FERPA. Thus, he must endure campuswide speculation about his role in a possible cover-up and perceptions that he did not take the allegations seriously.
Last Saturday night, the Blue Devils traveled 10 miles south on U.S. 15-501 to beat archrival North Carolina 84--77 in their regular-season finale. The Duke campus had emptied, exams had ended, but the Blue Devils' toughest test was still unresolved.